My paternal grandmother would have understood the plight of Syrian refugees. Born in 1870, in what is now Ukraine and then was Russia, she survived the upheaval and banditry of the Russian Revolution; her husband had died earlier, in a typhus epidemic. In 1929, she said farewell to her middle son (my father), then only 18 years old, who fled alone to Canada, seeking a life with more hope than was possible in Russia. She lived through forced collectivization, lost a daughter and son-in-law to starvation, and in the Second World War, welcomed German invaders because they spoke her language and brought some order amidst the chaos. Whether she was one of many Mennonites, including my father’s oldest surviving sister, who followed the German army back to Germany only to be re-patriated to Russia, I do not know.
My grandmother entered my life when I was a little girl, too young to understand the stories told among the grownups — but only in the daytime, lest recurring nightmares banish sleep. She had been brought to Canada as a refugee by my father after the Second World War had ended and before the Cold War made emigration impossible. A quiet woman, grateful for every kindness, she was granted a few years of comfortable living before she died. The primary thing I remember of her is her burial in a country cemetery, in a light rain, to the sound of my father’s sobs — a sound I’d never heard before.
My family eventually moved to Saskatoon and I left behind the small Mennonite community of my childhood. Anxious to become part of my new city life, I refused to look back. I did not return to that country graveyard until our children were teenagers. By that time my only sister and I had grown apart, thanks to different life choices and experiences. To her credit, she never gave up on me and remained in regular contact, despite my judgmentalism and unwillingness to explore either patterns of human behaviour, which she, an educator and psychologist, had made her life’s study; or our religious heritage, which she had examined more honestly than I had yet dared to do.
But there comes a time in our lives, according to James Hollis, writer and Jungian analyst, when we cease striving and begin evaluating what it has all been for — that is, if we can permit memories to resurface and begin to question the assumptions on which we have carved out our careers and built our families.
The first half of life requires the creation of our identities; the second half is for finding meaning. This shift is not determined by a calendar. For people like my paternal grandmother, the struggle to survive forestalls any such reflections. Beliefs remain unexamined because they’re too badly needed for survival; education remains a distant dream. Or life may have been easy enough and kind enough that it’s possible to refuse the calling to become more than earners of wages and spenders of the spoils. For others, the second half of life begins early, as it often has for mythic leaders and religious thinkers. Childhood trauma, especially if masked by self-destructive behaviours, can also trigger urgent re-examination of identity, of selfhood.
The second half of my life just happened to coincide with the beginning of my career, following years given to raising our children, when religious certainties were dissolving like so much mist in the sun. Frankly, it felt more like breaking apart into small pieces as if I were an already cracked rock being pummeled by a random sledge hammer. Who knows how the cracks first appeared. As in the forest giant boulders are wedged apart at last by sun and wind and granules of sand and infinitesimal roots of plants, so the mind and heart are infiltrated by small questions, incongruent happenings, stubborn inner cues that won’t go away, and loving actions of others (sometimes strangers, sometimes enemies). Whatever the mysterious process is, it leads us where we need to go.
Where I needed to go, with my sister, was to the country graveyard where my paternal grandmother lay, half a world away from her home. My sister had come for a summer visit and wanted to return to places we both knew. I provided a vehicle and my company — and a picnic lunch that we ate in that treeless prairie graveyard, in the shade of a small tool shed. The stone on Grandmother’s grave was almost unreadable, but we did find it, and stood in silence and tears. We wept, I think, for her many losses and suffering, and for our father, now also dead, who should have had more time with his long-widowed mother.
We wept also for each other, each of us carrying our own traces of family trauma, for we were beginning to understand how the pain of one generation suffuses more than just that one generation. And we were now learning to listen to each other again, not in order to peddle our own grand solutions, religious or psychological, but in order to hear, to bear witness. Grandmother, gentle quiet soul that she was, had lived through so much, without a voice, with little choice but to endure. I like to think she would have smiled to see that her grave had become a safe place near which her granddaughters could give each other hugs, and share a sandwich.
Froese taught English literature at St. Thomas More College in Saskatoon for many years until her retirement. She currently works part time as academic editor while relishing the freedom to read and write for pleasure.